Apropos of what we’ll be discussing for much of next week, this episode of PBS’ Nature series discusses the relationship between humans and our classic domesticated pets – cats and dogs. Through expert interviews, a visit to a Humane Society shelter, and owner-bios reminiscent of the famous couple scenes from When Harry Met Sally, the show seeks to explain – or at least explore – the bonds between pets and their humans.
It’s easy to get indignant about humans domestication of certain animals – we’re asserting our dominance! we’re pretending we rule the globe! we’re stripping them of their natural wild natures! – it’s also important to remember that we evolved alongside our domesticated animals, both pet and pastoral, and through this coevolution we all have become different creatures. Marc Bekoff, a former Guggenheim fellow and Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Boulder who is interviewed extensively in the episode, explains that these bonds of coevolution are strengthened by the presence of mirror neurons in both humans and common pets – that is, dogs and cats. Mirror neurons are what enable us to feel the emotions of another creature, be they of our species or another. As Bekoff puts it, they are “the neural basis for empathy…[required] for the formulation and maintenance of social bonds.” In other words, that prize human emotion – the one that leads to self-awareness, to social structure, to emotional relationships – is, in fact, not human at all.
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t point out the often elitist – or at least excessively moral – human paradigm that we, as a species, tend to impose on the rest of the planet’s animals. And it’s important to note that these animals are not human – they are close to us, but they are not, and never will be the same as us. As one of the dog owners interviewed in the opening sequence says, “they’re another tribe…and what I really love about dogs and cats is that they’re not like us.”
So watch the documentary. Though be warned, it might bring you to tears –I know it did me – the kind of hot, messy, gut-wrenching tears that we seem to save for the inevitable goodbyes to our pets.